The Austin Chronicle

Small Audiences, Large Souls

At the Fusebox Festival, size matters, but that doesn't always mean 'big'

By Robert Faires, April 22, 2011, Arts

It isn't that Ron Berry is down on crowds. The Fusebox Festival founder and artistic director would most likely be ecstatic to have South by Southwest-sized masses lining up for its envelope-pushing theatre, dance, music, and cross-disciplinary mash-ups every April, if only to see the creative innovators he brings in from across the country and beyond receive more of the cultural recognition they're due.

But Berry is all about the conversation, as is clear any time he chats about his fest, now in its seventh year, and it's tough to carry on a meaningful dialogue among a few thousand people. So when you talk about the Fusebox experience, "small" isn't necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, it can be a very, very good thing, as it is with, say, craft beer. "Small" in that realm lets you know that greater care has been taken in the process of creation, resulting in a richer, more intense, and potent product. And the "small" audience for it is more likely to appreciate the effort that went into its making. Pulling together the artists and projects that comprise Fusebox, Berry is sensitive to "experiences you can only have in small settings." It may be something like Rubber Repertory's Biography of Physical Sensation, in which the audience of 35 shares in opportunities to feel, taste, smell, hear, and see very specific sensory experiences rooted in one woman's life history; or Bottled-in-Bond: The Decline and Fall of a Thug Told in Five Drinks, part of the new Fusebox culinary series (see "Digestible Feats," below) in which 20 people slam back a few specially created cocktails together in the Tigress Pub while listening to a noirish tale of criminal misfortune; or The Bench, by Ant Hampton of theatre company Rotozaza and British writer Glen Neath, in which two strangers serve as both audience and actors, taking part in a scripted dialogue fed to them line by line over headphones. Such works have a certain intimacy built into them, yes, but they also take that quality beyond putting you close to the staged action – they develop it into a bond among all the members of the audience who have shared the work with you. You feel the connection of a communal experience, and there are few enough of you to dissolve some of the anonymity of the traditional audience experience. You establish something of a personal link to those people around you, and that makes it so much easier to interact with them when the experience has ended. It fosters that impulse to talk about this thing you've been through together – the holy grail of conversation that Berry pursues so fervently. It isn't merely people chatting; it's "community-building" in his eyes.

But just because a Fusebox work involves only a few people onstage or counts its audience members in the dozens doesn't mean that it's small in all respects. Fusebox regulars such as Phil Soltanoff or the choreographic/compositional team of Angelle Hebert and Phillip Kraft known as tEEth (see "Why They Come Back") integrate movement, music, sound, and video in ways that magnify the impact of each, giving them the texture, depth, and expansive ideas more common to grander works. Some Fusebox projects achieve this by virtue of their settings. The Free Range Music series debuting this year (see "Fusebox Music") creates what Berry calls "a different interface to hear the music" by locating bands in nontraditional settings: Mother Falcon inside the Seaholm Power Plant, Golden Hornet Project on the ramp of the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge. The environments themselves are monumental and so bestow an epic quality on the musicians and their work. What Fusebox offers are microspectacles, minimal in size but maximal in scope and feel.

And these monumental miniatures work their ways on the little clusters of folks who see them, not just bringing them closer together but expanding their perspectives, their creative sensibilities, their spirits. Berry acknowledges that Fusebox has small audiences, but he argues that they have large souls – often before they come, certainly after they leave. His festival may not be the biggest around, but it's big where it counts – and maybe more significantly, small where it counts.

Digestible Feats

Fusebox has long been a feast in the metaphorical sense, but this year it adds a literal dimension to that term. The festival is bringing the culinary arts into its cross-disciplinary mix of collaborations with Digestible Feats, a series in which mixologists and chefs are paired with writers, musicians, actors, sound engineers, and even graphic designers to craft experiences that engage taste, smell, and touch in tandem with sight and hearing. The participants include bartenders Adam Bryan (Bar Congress), Houston Eaves (East Side Show Room), Josh Loving (Fino), and Jason Stevens (the Tigress); chefs Sonya Coté (East Side Show Room), Jason Donoho (Fino), Julio-Cesar Florez (La Sombra), and Eric Ting (East Side King); playwright Steve Moore (Nightswim); actor Zeb L. West (The Jungle); sound engineer Buzz Moran (The Intergalactic Nemesis); composer/musicians Graham Reynolds (Golden Arm Trio) and Ben Webster (Butcher Bear); video artists Lee Webster and Matti Sloman (Austin Video Bee); and editors Michu Benaim and Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz (Gopher Illustrated). Is your mouth watering yet?

Opening Lunch

Thursday, April 21, noon-2pm, the Grackle, 1700 E. Sixth

To complement the grill-charred meats and vegetables by chef Eric Ting of East Side King, video artists Lee Webster and Matti Sloman project watercolor images and shadow puppets while musician Josh Duke plays. Free.

Cocktail Lounge #1: One Night in Seaholm

Sunday, April 24, 9-11pm, Seaholm Power Plant, 214 West Ave.

Houston Eaves of East Side Show Room and Adam Rose plus four bartenders create a pop-up craft cocktail bar inside the power plant. Free; cash bar.

Eat, Drink, Listen

Monday, April 25, 9-11:30pm, Fino, 2905 San Gabriel

To complement specially created tapas by Fino chef Jason Donaho and cocktails by barman Josh Loving, Graham Reynolds performs his own original compositions on piano, with bassist Utah Hamrick and drummer Jeremy Bruch. Seating is limited to 30. $75-95.

Digestible Beats

Tuesday, April 26, 7-10pm, Springdale Farm, 755 Springdale

East Side Show Room chef Sonya Coté creates the meal while Foley artist Buzz Moran and composer/musician Ben Webster, aka Butcher Bear, create a live sound mosaic. Co-presented by the Austin Museum of Art, Edible Austin, and Fusebox. Seating is limited to 40. $35-75.

Cocktail Lounge #2: The Martini Glass

Wednesday, April 27, 5-7pm, Bar Congress, 200 Congress

Mixologist Adam Bryan of Bar Congress presents a series of cocktails that have been known by the name martini and served in the iconic glass.

Streets of Latin America

Thursday, April 28, La Sombra, 4800 Burnet Rd.

La Sombra chef Julio-Cesar Florez and Gopher Illustrated editors Michu Benaim and Lope Gutierrez-Ruiz present a menu drawn from street foods of Mexico, Venezuela, and Peru served in custom-designed, hand-inked wrappers. Part of the proceeds of each sale benefit Fusebox.

Bottled-in-Bond: The Decline and Fall of a Thug as Told in Five Drinks

Saturday, April 30, 3pm, the Tigress, 100 W. North Loop

Playwrights Steve Moore and Zeb L. West of Physical Plant Theater and bartender Jason Stevens of the Tigress and East Side Show Room offer a noir tale in which cocktails play a leading role. Seating is limited to 20. $40-60.

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